Top 10 scams of 2014 from the Better Business Bureau

CHICAGO -- The Better Business Bureau just released a list of the top 10 scams of 2014. Steve Bernas, CEO and President of the BBB serving Chicago and Northern Illinois, explained what they were and how to avoid becoming a victim.

In 2014, the Better Business Bureau serving Chicago and Northern Illinois received numerous calls and emails concerning various scams, new and old. The 10 scams having the greatest impact on consumers involved new ways to cheat people out of money and steal personal identity information, or sometimes both. While they may use emails and other digital communications, they focus on deception and people being too busy to first check out the source of the communication.

"This year, scammers found new ways to steal from innocent consumers and businesses, whether it be through multiple data breaches, fake invoice schemes, or even by pretending to be government officials." said Steve J. Bernas, president & CEO of the BBB. "Some scams were widespread, getting a lot of people for small amounts. Others were more narrowly focused, taking people for thousands or tens of thousands of dollars."

In no particular order, the Top Ten scams of 2014 according to the BBB serving Chicago and Northern Illinois were:

Data Breaches
Hackers are getting into computer systems that store financial and personal data then using it for fraud. In 2014, financial information was taken from many large retailers and social security numbers from a large hospital chain in the Chicago and Northern Illinois area. Affected companies are obligated by law to notify customers about breaches. Although you cannot avoid a data breach itself, you can prepare yourself for what may follow once your personal information has been stolen.

Scam Protection:
Keep track of your finances. Check credit card statements. Sign up for card usage notifications. Check your accounts online. Call your bank or credit card company if something seems suspicious on your statements.

IRS Imposters
Calls from scammers claiming to be IRS officials swept the country in 2014. Thousands of calls were made to individuals threatening jail, deportation and loss of property if payment was not made. The Chicago and northern Illinois area had losses of around one million dollars. Consumers were left voicemails saying they need to call the IRS immediately to avoid legal consequences.

Scam Protection:
Hang up if you receive one of these calls. Do not provide any personal information. Contact the FCC and the FTC.

Click-Bait Schemes
Sensational or provocative content, especially on social media, attracts attention and draws visitors to a particular web page. In 2014, these stories were often used to trick consumers into clicking on links that go to fraudulent websites. When clicked on, malware is installed on your computer or smartphone.

Scam Protection:
Don't click on videos or photos that claim to be "exclusive," "shocking" or "sensational." Delete social media messages or emails that raise red flags in your mind. Take a moment to hover over a link to see its true destination.

Fake Utility Bills
This summer, scammers targeted individual consumers and businesses with false claims that their utility bills were delinquent and their services were in danger of being disconnected. Many got calls from scammers who demanded that they immediately pay their alleged delinquent accounts.

Scam Protection:
If you receive one of these calls, do not provide any personal or financial information. Make sure to call your utility service provider directly and verify if a call was made.

Pre-Paid Cards
Pre-paid debit cards such as GreenDot Money Cards, Wal-Mart MoneyCard and Western Union MoneyWise became a risk for consumers in 2014. Scammers, posing as "support reps" for these companies, tell consumers they need a refund for the money on the card, and request a person's credit and checking account numbers. This information gives scammers access to the prepaid card and your financial accounts.

Scam Protection:
Never give out financial information to someone you don't know. To verify the request, call the card company at the phone number listed on the card, or the company's general number.

Tech Support Scams
This fall, there was a surge in reports of consumers receiving calls from individuals claiming that Microsoft has been notified of errors or viruses on their computers that need removal. The scammer persuades the victim to download a program which allows remote access to their computer. Once access is gained, the scammer shows typical computer errors, which are still enough to convince the owner there is a problem. They then offer to fix the problems for anywhere from $200 - 400.

Scam Protection:
Never give control of your computer to a third party unless it is a support team with whom you are a customer and can confirm that they are legitimate. To verify the request, call the company at the business' general number listed in official documentation.

Advance Fee Loans
Advance fee loans-also known as short-term high-rate loans, cash advance loans, check advance loans, payday loans or title loans-are very expensive forms of credit. Consumers are solicited by telemarketers, contacted by email, or see offers in classified sections of newspapers and magazines or on the Internet. Many times consumers never receive their loan, in spite of paying up-front fees.

Scam Protection:
Check on a business beforehand. Read the fine print. Get everything in writing. These are important steps to avoid being taken advantage of with advance fee loans.

Fake Lottery & Sweepstakes
Lottery and Sweepstakes scams usually begin with a phone call or an email. The consumers are told they won a large sum of money but they must first pay fees and taxes. Victims wire this money, but never get their "winnings" or get back the money they sent.

Scam Protection:
Consumers need to keep in mind that when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If you never entered a contest, you can't win. And you should never pay to claim a prize.

Office Supplies/School Supply Scams
In 2014, a company falsely sent invoices to schools and school districts. Districts were billed for bulk purchase of textbooks that were never requested or received. This technique is also used on businesses for amounts that are a few hundred dollars. Inquiries received no responses; calls to a phone number routes to a series of voice mail boxes or mail drops.

Scam Protection:
Always cross check invoices with purchase orders. Check out new vendors or suppliers with the BBB.

Phishing Scams
Scams using email were more common in 2014. Cyber-criminals pose as legitimate businesses to get financial information via emails. Links in the email can put a virus on your computer that hunts for your personal and financial information to use for identity theft or other illegal activities.

Scam Protection:
Be cautious of clicking on links in unexpected emails. If you are expecting a confirmation receipt, log into your account and check for confirmation there. Be wary of emails that contain attached files. Don't respond to unsolicited emails. Don't click on links in unsolicited emails.

"Before giving any company your personal or financial information, review the business on the BBB website," said Bernas. "And remember, if an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is."

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